22/02/2012 05:12 GMT | Updated 22/04/2012 06:12 BST

Harry Potter and the Midnight of the Century

Children's fiction often contains a strange paradox, that is, its themes can be at once both magical and horrific. Consider the wonderful Roald Dahl, whose writing regularly involved children being gobbled up by crocodiles or transfigured by witches. And Dahl is by no means unique: a dark thread runs through the history of children's literature more generally.

The Brothers Grimm, for example, found the gothic inspiration for their stories in medieval fairy-tales. These tales, in turn, drew their own darkness from the dense forests which once carpeted what is now Germany. It is speculated that in times of plague or famine, small villages couldn't continue to sustain everyone. Sometimes younger children were taken out into the dark woods and abandoned there, or this, at least, is the more benevolent explanation for the accounts of the disappearance of children living in places where communities were starving.

And so, in something like Hansel and Gretel that 'historic darkness' into which actual children disappeared, is given a resonance in fantasy. The real theme of Hansel and Gretel involves the loss of children as a result of cannibalism: there is perhaps nothing more taboo in the pantheon of human behaviour than this, and it would be difficult to imagine anything less suited as a bedtime story for young children. But children (and adults) nearly always find such tales enthralling. Perhaps this is because we have the ability to sense within the tale some profound but dark truth buried in the subconscious of our own historical past. It is this which draws us close, which pulls us in.

If the tales of the Brothers Grimm were mediated by European medievalism, then the Harry Potter series draws its power from the 'midnight' of the twentieth century and the rise of fascism. The character of Voldermort is a clear paradigm of the fascist leader: his unconscionable resume consists of an eerie devotion to a philosophy based on the archaic notions of race and bloodline, and a determination to exterminate those who fall outside its parameter.

But more than this, the Harry Potter novels manage to trace in phantom outline fascism's real world trajectory. Hogwarts in the first book is analogous to the Weimar Republic in as much as the whiff of fascism was in the air; in the case of Hogwarts the disembodied idea is found floating in the forbidden forest, in 1920s Germany it was drifting across the beer halls and coffee houses carried by the racist jokes of embittered patriots.

In both real history and JK Rowling's fantasy, the horror of fascism lies in its becoming; the point at which ideological strands, which are with us all the time, are crystallised and brought to terrible fruition in and through concrete social forms. Fascism is the movement by which the Dark Lord attains a corporeal form in both word and deed.


Of course Harry Potter is about much more than this. It is about magical creatures and enchantments and dragons and all those other wonderful things. It is about the fabulous adventures of a young boy wizard. But, as with all great literature, the Harry Potter series acts as a lightning rod; that is, it becomes a conduit through which profound truths about nature of the world and its structures are channelled in order to be expressed in a beautiful and dreamlike way. It is doubtful that, when writing these stories, JK Rowling set out to make some kind of historical point. Nevertheless, through her writing, history manages to make a point or two of its own.

You might disagree - after all we're only talking about tales for children! But it is worth remembering that within children's literature there is a tradition whereby key historical moments attain a fantastical otherworldliness. Consider the marvellous stories of C.S Lewis whose dramatic apex occurs in a scene where the lion Aslan is affixed to the stone table and executed. This is, of course, a fantastic variation on the tribulation of Christ and, incidentally, JK Rowling herself remains to this day a great fan of the author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Literature and art more generally, must in some way draw upon the historic in order to gain sustenance. And in a paradoxical way, children's literature is more capable of this than most. A young child is, after all, often able to state, in a guileless and direct way, truths which sometimes unsettle the adults in the vicinity. Children's literature is perhaps able to achieve something similar.